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Globovisión faces possibility of closure as government tightens grip on dissent

(IPI/WAN-IFRA/IFEX) - Paris, Darmstadt, Vienna, July 2, 2012 - The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the International Press Institute (IPI) have expressed their grave concern as Venezuela's main private TV channel Globovisión faces the possibility of closure as a result of an exorbitant fine and a freezing of its assets by the Supreme Court.

WAN-IFRA's press freedom mission to Caracas in June revealed pressing concerns related to freedom of expression: with presidential elections now only three months away, the government is using intimidation to undermine the work of the independent media.

On Thursday 28 June, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice upheld a US$2.162 million-dollar fine against Globovisión and ordered the freezing of US$5.7 million dollars of the station's assets. The TV channel, known to be staunchly critical of President Hugo Chávez, must also cover legal costs of US$1.3 million dollars.

"Such a disproportionate and arbitrary decision by the Supreme Court of Justice reveals a blunt political move to stifle the main opposition media during the election campaign," said Alison Meston Press Freedom Director at WAN-IFRA. "This is an alarming development that is a clear warning to all media ahead of what will be an extremely important election, not only for Venezuela but the whole of Latin America."

IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: "The move by the Supreme Court to ratify the exorbitant fine imposed on Globovisión, and to freeze its assets, is consistent with the deterioration of press freedom in Venezuela, and with intensifying attacks on, and harassment of, critical media in the run-up to the elections."

The channel is awaiting the court's decision on its final recourse: to annul the charges entirely.

The original fine was brought against Globovisión in October 2011 by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) on the grounds that the station had stirred "public anxiety, hatred and intolerance" through its June 2011 coverage of a deadly prison riot at El Rodeo penitentiary in the town of Guatire, just outside the capital Caracas. Two appeals launched by Globovisión have been rejected by the Supreme Court.

The station's lawyers claim the Court's decision violates the due process of justice, as it cannot order a freezing of assets during an on-going trial.

In an effort to avoid closure, Globovisión paid the Court's initial fine the day after the decision came down. The payment of the fine should theoretically lead to the lifting of the freezing of assets later this week.

The decision by the Supreme Court follows an intensifying pattern of media attacks across the country. Judicial and administrative harassment, physical threats and public insults through the state-controlled media by members of the government are frequent tactics aimed at stifling dissent. Violent attacks have also been on the rise: the premises of the daily Qué Pasa in the city of Maracaibo, Zulia state, were damaged by a grenade attack on 29 May. Hours later, 14 gunshots were fired at the Catatumbo TV building, while on 3 June, several shots were fired at the headquarters of Versión Final daily newspaper.

In a report following its press freedom mission to Venezuela, WAN-IFRA described how violence and self-censorship risk seriously undermining the media's role ahead of the October elections. It called on authorities at both the national and state level to guarantee the freedom of the press and ensure both the state and independent media are able to cover the elections freely and without fear of reprisal.
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